The Ten Bulls (or Ox-herding Pictures) of Zen
The ‘Ten Bulls of Zen’ (or alternatively the ‘Ten
Ox-herding Pictures of Zen’) is a metaphoric depiction of stages of self-realization,
involving an ox-herder (representing the seeker) and an ox or bull
(representing our true, primordial nature). It remains one of the best models
for describing the awakening process. It was around from the early days of
Cha’an (Zen) Buddhism in China, but was developed and completed by the 12th century C.E.
Chinese Cha’an master Kuo-an Shih-yuan (Kakuan Shien), depicted on the right. The ‘Ten Bulls’ defines
the stages of deep awakening as follows, with Kakuan’s commentary in italics (as with many of the old texts there are several different translations into
English; what follows is but one version):
I. The Search for the Bull
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, my strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
The seeker looks for the bull (symbolic of his or her true nature, the ‘Buddha-mind’). This is the beginning of the path. It is usually heralded by a fundamental disappointment with one’s life, and a recognition, however dim, that we have been living a life governed by endless distractions leading us down endless ‘garden paths’ of nonsense. The search for the real meaning of our life begins: we are now seeking, however uncertainly, the bull. In the context of meditation, this can be thought of as marking our initial efforts as we sit.
Discovering the Footprints
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints! Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.
footprints of the bull are spotted. This is the point when the seeker’s
confidence in the reality of the bull—in the reality of the possibility of
awakening—begins to grow. It could be said to represent the intellectual
conviction that the possibility of salvation or liberation from the bondage of
the mind and its powerful delusions is real. In meditation, it marks the
progress that is noted as the mind begins to focus more clearly.
3. First sight of the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore, here no bull can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
The bull is spotted! The bull appears far away, perhaps even hiding behind a
bush, but now there is no doubt that it is real. Visual confirmation has
happened. This stage marks the first glimpse of the underlying principle of
mysticism, that all that is perceived is ultimately the same as the Source
(pure consciousness) that perceives it. This can be likened to an initial mild awakening, usually called satori or kensho in Zen.
4. Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
The bull is ‘caught’, but the seeker’s relationship with him is rocky. What
this implies is that even after an initial glimpse into our true nature, unruly
mental states—in particular, strong feelings and emotions—still arise. The bull
is still ‘wild’. Despite our glimpse, we are still very much in the grips of our unconscious mind with its habits and agendas.
5. Taming the Bull
The whip and rope are necessary, else he might stray off down some dusty road. Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle. Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
This stage refers to the important realization that all thoughts arising in the
mind are manifestation of our true nature. All
is as it is, and must be seen that way (as opposed to being ‘made
wrong’—‘this should not be the way it is’). With this realization, the mind begins to settle and to work with us, rather than against us.
6. Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.
sixth stage represents a deepening of understanding, and a corresponding
quality of disengaging from struggle—the conventional struggle between
oppositional mind states. Krishna, in the Bhagavad
Gita [14:24-25] makes reference to this state when he remarks to Arjuna,
‘Who dwells in his inner self, and is the same in pleasure and pain; to whom
gold or stones or earth are one, and what is pleasing and displeasing leave him
in peace; who is beyond both praise and blame, and whose mind is steady and
quiet; Who is the same in honour or disgrace, and has the same love for enemies
7. The Bull Transcended (Bull Forgotten, Self Alone)
Astride the bull, I reach home. I am serene. The bull too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
stage marks the classic definition of enlightenment, when it is finally and
directly understood that the seeker (the egoic self) and the bull (the
Buddha-mind, our real nature) are not separate, and never have been. Prior to
this awakening has been an ‘experience’—requiring a ‘me’ to experience this 'awakening'. At the seventh stage, the central illusion of this separation is
radically realized. There is no bull, and there never has been.
Both Bull and Self Transcended (or Forgotten)
Whip, rope, person, and bull—all merge in No-Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.
The eight stage is a deepening and maturing of the seventh stage; here, all
vestiges of what Chogyam Trungpa called ‘spiritual materialism’, or what Zen calls the 'awful smell of enlightenment, the subtle
self-consciousness of ‘being awake’—‘I am a Buddha’—is extinguished. Roshi
Kapleau, in his commentary on this stage, linked it to an old Chinese parable
of a man who became enlightened, and experienced birds ‘commemorating’ the
occasion by showering him with flowers. As his enlightenment deepened, the
birds stopped doing this, ‘as he no longer gave off any aura, even of devotion
9. Reaching the Source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without—the river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
stage marks resting in the full recognition of the Source as ‘consciousness
without an object’. It can be understood as the complete penetration of Ramana Maharshi’s
ultimate koan, Who am I? It is the
return to the center from which all thoughts and all universes arise: pure consciousness
itself, self-radiant without cause, unqualified and perfect. Things are as they are: the ‘river flows
tranquilly on and the flowers are red’.
10. In the World (Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands)
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
In some of the parables of the tenth stage, the seeker (now a finder) re-enters the world with a gourd, traditionally used for holding wine. The wine can be seen as symbolic of the true sage’s embrace of the world, and of his willingness to utilize any means to awaken others—even by entering into, and participating in, their ‘reality-tunnels’ or private dream-worlds. This is sometimes called the way of the ‘crazy wisdom master’; however that term is highly susceptible to being misunderstood or misused. According to Mahayana Buddhist teachings, a true ‘crazy wisdom master’ is only one who has reached a profound level of awakening and has been purified of character defilements. This enables them to enter into any dimension of reality without concern of becoming tainted and thereby having their clarity, or motives, for helping others compromised.
Copyright 2011 by P.T. Mistlberger